One of the main attractions of Sapa are the beautiful rice terraces along the slopes of the hills and mountains. The rice harvesting usually happens around September and therefore the best months to visit would be in the middle of the year (it is also warmer but be prepared for many tourists). The best way to enjoy this is to do some trekking (see my tips under "Transportation Tip" section) but it will not be as easy as your think. Besides growing rice, the local people also grow vegetables and farm poulteries. It is generally self sufficient in Sapa and the surrounding areas.
The Hmong people are the most populated of the ethnic minority groups at Sapa and surroundings. These people are the same as the Miao people in China, and they are mainly divided into the Black Hmong and Colour Hmong. You will see lots of Black Hmong people at Sapa and they are very skilled at selling souvenirs (in fact some of them speak good English). You will also get to visit their villages during trekking (Cat Cat Village near to Sapa belongs to the Black Hmong). For the Colour Hmong (which wears very colourful costumes), you will need to visit the markets of other villages such as Bac Ha (2-3 hours drive away). The Black Hmongs used the indigo dyes obtained from the indigo plants growing in the hills to dye their clothes, and use the hemp fibres to make various handicrafts.
The Red Dzao people are recognised by their beautiful and elaborate head dress, shaven head and eyebrows. They are less populated compared to the Hmong people and tend to me more shy. The best time to see the Red Dzao people is on a Saturday morning at the Sapa market. You will be many of them in big groups, as well as buying stuff from the market.
Mount Fansipan is the highest mountain in Vietnam at about 3100m above sea level, and it is also the highest mountain in the Indochina region. This mountain can be seen from Sapa on a clear day (see photos) and there are 5-6 days guide trips for the more adventurous people to climb this mountain. My trekking guide has climbed it many times and told me that it is not easy especially the final part to the summit. Also, the weather up there is unpredictable and sometimes the trips are cancelled because of the weather.
There are several impressive waterfalls in the Sapa region, the best is the Silver Waterfall. However, it is rather far from Sapa and transportation is required to reach there. A much nearer waterfall (about 1 hour easy walk from Sapa) would be the Cat Cat Waterfall just after the Cat Cat village located near to Sapa. Very nice waterfall but rather touristy because of its close proximity to Sapa. The people of Sapa have use the waterfalls to generate electricity and you can see hydroelectric station next to the waterfall.
Sapa is a small town located in the mountainous area in northern Vietnam close to the border with China (Yunnan province). Sapa used to be a stronghold of the French during the colonial days but now this gives way to tourism. In fact on a busy day, there could be more tourists than locals in Sapa. Therefore this town is geared up for tourism with hotels, restaurants, cafe bars, souvenir shops etc. Sapa is actually located on a slope and you will have a good view of the town from your hotel. The main attractions in the town area are the Sapa market, ethnic minority people, Sapa church and of course the relaxing atmosphere and fresh mountain air. More photos are at part 2 of this tip as well as the travelogue section of this VT page.
Usually the trekking trips in Sapa will include one or more village house visit (some trips even allow you to stay overnight and mingle with the ethnic minority people). You will notice that the houses in the village are very simple and made mainly of wood. Most of them do not have electricity and the whole family lives in the small house. Food is also stored here and there are no doors seperating the kitchen. It is very basic and not very hygienic as the locals are still very poor. Besides the above, I also managed to see how the house owner (Hmong people) dye her clothes in a big bucket of indigo dye obtained from the Indigo plant (see photo).
Cat Cat Village is the nearest ethnic minority village to Sapa and the people staying here are the Black Hmong people. It is a leisurely walk (about 20-30 minutes) down a sloped road and the scenery is very beautiful. Once you are at the village, you can visit the houses of the locals as well as buy souvenirs and handicrafts from them (remember to bargain). There are also a few scenic points for photo taking here with the beautiful landscape and rice terraces. After this village, you will reach the Cat Cat waterfalls (see my "waterfalls" tip).
8km uphill from Sa Pa, Thac Bac is an impressive 100m high waterfall. Thac Dien, a smaller one is about 1km or so further away.
Entrance fee required to climb up to the waist of Thac Bac. Enroute there, you can move out to the railings for some photo shoots (be very careful with slippery ground).
From the bridge across the fall, take off your shoes and tread carefully into the nearby wading pools, whilst the thunderous falls flow off elsewhere.
There is also a good view from the bridge.
Most tourists flock to Sa Pa over the weekends for the market in and around the town. Minority tribes usually make weekends their trading days and will turn up in full force bedecked with their finery and hawking handicrafts to passing tourists.
Most young Hmong girls in Sa Pa speak very good English and you'll be surprised that they can remember your face and name well just after one single acquaintance. So be very careful not to make any empty promises.
Another interesting sight is catching the Hmongs coming in motorbikes. A contrast of tradition against modernization.
The market around the main part of town does not rest even after weekends, though you will likely miss the "crowded and busy" feel of weekends.
Highly recommended. A nice standard trek from Sapa town, about 3km on well paved road downhill. A great introduction to see the country side of Sapa. There is a nice bridge across the fast flowing river and confluence of waterfalls at this disused small power station built by the French.
Recommend joining a tour with a guide. Of course, you can do it own your too as this is safe and clearly marked walk more than a trek and you come back the same way.
Going back is uphil and I recommend taking the motorcycle ride, xe om. Price is negotiable and reasonable. Save your legs for other longer hikes. I took the motorcycle back, the others walked back but were heavily drenched by unexpected downpour.
Past the Auberge hotel, continue heading right (facing hotel) for another trek into Hmong minority village.
We only walked a while further past the Auberge to the quieter part of town (until the Green Bamboo hotel) for a quick glance of surroundings.
Nice scene of vegetable plots and intertwining mountains (interlocking spurs?).
"Mt Hamrong Tourist Mountain" is the full name of the mountain, botanical garden and Hmong cultural village situated behind Sa Pa church in town.
Good reasons to go there - the botanical garden has some interesting flowers, there are really cute Hmong children running around the park and good view of Sa Pa town.
Some of the venues at the mountain are really reminiscent of China with Chinese influenced names like "Cloudyard", "Heaven's Gate" or "Dragon's Jaw".
Not so good reasons to go there - horrid sounding name, searing heat with little sheltar.
Spotting different minority villagers was initially really exciting during the first day in Sa Pa, with their attractive traditional dresses and interesting local crafts.
Close to our end of 4 days there, they just became another passerby in town.
My friend and I were discussing how we would have felt if tourists started coming to our houses and photographing us engaged in daily events we would have thought insignificant (like putting the laundry out to dry). That's the way we [all] were in Sa Pa.
This trip can be combined with a visit to Thac Bac waterfall. About 8km from Sa Pa, you can trek there (the trail starts from Chocolat & Baguette) but the road is mostly uphill (rather tough).
From the pass, it's a hit-or-miss case of getting to see the clear valley of Lau Chai on one side and fogged out view of Sa Pa on the other. We saw fog eveywhere on our visit.
Between Tran Tom and Thac Bac is also the starting point for trekking up to Mount Fansipan.